Universities across the country are working in all areas of research and development to advance cannabis cultivation, medicine, drug delivery and technology. But these innovations are collecting dust because the universities are not in the business of commercializing products in the marketplace.
In 1980, the federal government passed a law that said universities that receive federal funding, which most of them do, will have the option to own whatever intellectual property or invention they develop from that federal funding. Initially, universities resisted the idea feeling they were selling their souls to the private sector and corporate America. But opinions have changed, and the marriage between universities and industries is a common and rewarding business strategy for both sides.
I interviewed Lance Anderson, a partner at the law firm Dickinson Wright who is uniquely positioned to play matchmaker to research universities, entrepreneurs and VCs to help them uncover cannabis innovations and create partnerships. Lance is also educated in life sciences, including proprietary plants, genetics and plant-derived products, and served as in-house counsel and lead IP attorney for a large public research university system and an early-stage venture capital company.
Pam Chmiel: What led you to play matchmaker to universities and cannabis businesses?
Lance Anderson: I learned that universities are interested in commercially benefiting from some of their innovations when I worked in the technology commercialization office at Texas Tech University right out of law school.
The concept of “technology transfer for commercialization” already exists in universities and presents a vast opportunity for cannabis businesses to commercialize their innovations.
“Technology Transfer” agreements refer to moving technology, knowledge or innovations from one organization, such as a research university, to another entity, such as a cannabis company, through licensing agreements that grant permission to use intellectual property (IP), patents or proprietary technology for commercial purposes.
Even though legalization is sweeping the country, I’m finding that academic institutions and their administrators are concerned they will lose all federal funding and are hesitant to take the chance on a cannabis research project. They are still getting comfortable with the opportunities to work with the industry, and the farm bill act of 2018 gave them the push to do so.
And why not tap into these universities, which receive millions and millions of dollars in funding? You’re not out a lot if you properly structure your relationship with them. You do not have to pay them millions and millions of dollars to get this technology. Knowing what the university wants and how to structure that relationship is key.
Pam: What are some of the benefits a business can gain by forging a partnership with a university?
Cannabis companies benefit by gaining access to cutting-edge research, expertise and resources that can accelerate and elevate their product development and market entry.
The association with academic institutions can help build trust among consumers, investors, and lawmakers.
Working with university research students may create a pipeline of qualified employees who may want to work for the company.
Submitting a joint proposal with a university seeking government grants may lead to additional funding for the research project.
Pam: What types of partnerships do you currently see in development?
Lance: Pharmaceutical companies have collaborated with research universities for years on drug development and undoubtedly have their eye on the cannabis industry. Federal agencies like the USDA lean on academic partnerships to develop unique plant traits to improve crop production. You’ve got institutions developing new mind-blowing genetics, like polyploid species, that allow you to fine-tune the plant traits you’re interested in. There are always advances going on.
Clemson and Cornell Universities are leading the charge in cultivation by partnering with farms to develop techniques to grow better crops and increase profitability. And interestingly, many of the land grant institutions that receive federal grants, like Mississippi State, Michigan State and Texas A&M, are now diving into plant trait development. And it’s not unrealistic to think they will transition into plant-touching technologies ripe for the cannabis industry to come in and run with it from there.
But the research desperately needed to move the industry forward is medical research because lawmakers want proof that cannabis has medicinal benefits before they are confident in pushing for legalization. Unfortunately, the US government has been part of the problem in making it hard to conduct research, whether clinical trials, clinical research or simple preclinical studies on cannabis. Until recently, the University of Mississippi was the only university allowed to cultivate for research. So the researchers are now getting more access to cannabis strains that are more like what we’re seeing on the market, but it’s still not where we need to be. Not even close.
Academic partnerships are not a new concept, but the cannabis industry has yet to embrace it fully. Opportunities are beginning to develop where government agencies will participate and or fund the work in cannabis from the university standpoint. The National Institute of Health has a program that’s getting kicked off for cannabis research. And they all understand and recognize that the fact we don’t have enough clinical data available is a major hindrance to the advancement of this industry.
Pam: What is legally involved in a technology transfer partnership?
Lance: Collaboration between cannabis companies and research universities can take various forms, such as research partnerships, sponsored research agreements, joint ventures, or licensing arrangements. The specific model depends on the goals, resources, and intellectual property involved in the collaboration. An attorney can structure an agreement in a manner that lets everyone slowly advance into the relationship and get satisfied with the milestones they want and at which point this thing begins to take shape.
Cannabis businesses are no strangers to utilizing multiple entities in their corporate structuring. They may have a holding company that owns the real estate, a staffing company that manages the HR for the flower-touching operations, and another that holds the intellectual property. You’re seeing an entire industry familiar with IP licensing for the first time in a long time, and universities want in by licensing their intellectual property.
The university may require a licensee to have a product in the marketplace and a first sale within two years. So that introduces the concept of perishable intellectual property rights where you can default or don’t meet the licensing requirements. That perishable concept sometimes makes it hard to raise money because the investors prefer a guarantee that you have the license and will not default.
The takeaway is universities are thirsty for partnering and looking for strategic initiatives. Universities have access to patient populations, and the cannabis industry has the business know-how to take their innovations to market. It will take some culturing of both sides to understand the opportunities. But once everyone’s on the same page, the deals will look like the licenses and joint venture deals we see now with multi-state operators.
Pam: Lance, do you have any closing thoughts for our audience?
Lance: I’ve thought about this potential synergy for years as I’ve watched these two areas I practice in often. Academic partnerships are the catalyst to move the cannabis industry forward and are right in front of us. The time is now, and I’d love to be there.
Entrance into the cannabis industry is not equally accessible; it’s no secret it tends to be easier for those who are male and white. As a business leader, why should you take on the problem of equal market entrance opportunities? This just may become your company’s competitive advantage.
As a female entrepreneur with a first name associated with being male (and white, maybe a rancher in Wyoming), I have been accidentally invited to and witnessed the consequential shock of more than one exclusive, male-centric event, where any ladies were intended to be accessories and not present for business-talk with the boys. After enjoying their discomfort (and getting over my own), I see these moments as opportunities to advocate for inviting diversity into their discussion, seeking to make small changes to open doors for exponential progress. After all, it wasn’t so bad to have invited the woman, albeit accidentally; it was actually better because it happened.
In a dynamic and challenging industry, increasing diversity access is how to become future-ready. As will be discussed, companies see measurable financial performance and adaptability improvements with relatively small changes in leadership makeup. Here are three overarching tactics for you to increase cannabis market accessibility and champion diversity.
Facilitate Access to Capital for Cannabusinesses with Diverse Perspectives
The past two years of pandemic hardship have posed unique challenges for women, especially Black, Latina, and Indigenous women, who have had to put careers on pause to pick up additional heavy burdens of caregiving. Women’s unemployment is four times higher than men’s, and according to Forbes, the situation is worse for women of color.
Overall deal activity for female-founded companies is discouraging and downright dismal for Black female founders, who receive less than 1% of all venture capital investment. This is particularly vexing when considering that women-led or co-founded start-ups generated 78 cents of revenue compared to 31 cents for male-only-led startups over five years. EBIT margins were nine percentage points higher than companies with below-average diversity on their management teams. Relatively small changes exponentially improve operating earnings over operating sales.
It’s always been difficult for women to access capital. Women have historically been cordoned into home-keeping and caregiving roles and are often still expected to balance those capacities alongside a full-time career. Accordingly, female entrepreneurs receive fewer invitations to extra-work events and business relationship-building opportunities, such as pursuing financing, mergers, or joint ventures.
Increase Diversity Awareness and Facilitate Equal Opportunity
While financial investments are imperative, consider the following non-pecuniary methods of support as part of a full-picture, equitable accessibility solution.
Invite Activity, Provide Mentorship
Businesspeople can play a critical role in accelerating inclusion by actively seeking out people they do not already know. Employers can do this through the non-financial investment of time and resources to grow the pipeline of underrepresented people with skills to serve on investment teams. When under-invested groups bolster one another, the likelihood that investment pans out increases.
Mentoring must be a part of this process, as it provides essential guidance and support for individuals looking to enter or advance within these fields. By creating opportunities for mentorship and collaboration, you can play an active role in breaking down barriers and building a more inclusive economy for everyone.
Open the Door to Accessing Opportunities
Businesses can increase diversity awareness and facilitate equal entry into the cannabis industry by opening the door to events that help connect underrepresented candidates to professional development and capital.
Hosting free webinars is a great way to facilitate learning, conversation, and the exchange of empowering ideas. Webinars allow attendees to ask personalized questions and present your business with a stage from which you can speak about the importance of equity and inclusion.
Consider attending, sponsoring, or running a job fair with a focus on diversity hiring. Diversity hiring practices help businesses identify qualified candidates from different backgrounds, leading to a less homogenous workforce.
Make Continued Education Central
As the President of Oaksterdam University, I see firsthand the importance and empowering quality of ongoing education. I also recognize that not everyone can afford or receives equal access to continued education and accordingly offer this advice to help bolster equitable educational opportunities.
Make partnerships with educational institutions to offer your workforce chances to learn, and ensure they have paid working time to do so. If you can reduce the burden of learning for candidates with extra-work responsibilities, they have a greater chance of absorbing and putting that information into practice. If you have an employee with an incredible entrepreneurial idea, boost them up by offering to pay for a capital-raising class or a fundamental business course they may not be able to afford otherwise.
No one solution will “fix” equal access to education. Every step from open-source databases and free webinars to full college degrees is an incremental movement toward increased cannabis industry participation for traditionally disadvantaged populations.
Realize Social Equity Programs Are Not a Catch-All
Even the best-intentioned social equity program cannot accommodate every disadvantage a potential candidate will encounter. Take women as an example: There are many accommodations to consider for female-identifying participants, as they are at a more significant disadvantage in the licensing/permitting and job preparedness process. Some call for women participants qualifying for cannabis equity program services to receive additional funds and services (e.g., funding for childcare) to ensure equal access to opportunity.
The cannabis industry cannot atone for all the damages of the drug war, nor can a nascent industry that is not federally legal pay to uplift all of society. With that said, cannabis industry investors, executives, and workers might be the tipping point back toward baking justice, equity, and access to the laws we operate under. Better yet, we can raise expectations of one another as we do business and ask, “What do you do to increase fair play, diversify your leadership team, and address the imbalance?”
A Person is Not Diverse, But the Cannabis Industry Can Be
Addressing social equity and the concept of diversity can feel amorphous and confusing. Above all, it’s imperative to remember that a single person is not diverse; rather, a group of people is. A team can be diverse, and within your team is a great place to begin shaping the industry you wish to see. Rather than focusing on any one aspect of diversity, the goal should be to invest in and build diverse teams across many dimensions. Value comes from a range of differences, such as the national origin of executives, the variety of industry backgrounds, education levels, ages, and finding gender balance. The goal is that these different people feel they belong.
Equal market accessibility is not a problem you can solve passively — it must constantly be spoken of, worked toward, and embodied within each business decision and entrepreneurial move. An industry full of entrepreneurs making such decisions will undoubtedly result in a more equitable market than the one we’ve built so far. You will find yourself in a room of folks just like this. Lean into the awkward and invite the unfamiliar in – you will find you and your company are better for it.
The hiring process is evolving: major U.S. employers are reconsidering the significance of higher learning. An employer’s undue emphasis on university education while hiring is called “degree inflation.” As the hiring manager for NisonCo, a cannabis public relations, marketing and SEO agency, I have learned a college degree is not the best predictor of employee success.
NisonCo was established during the dawning of the modern cannabis legalization movement. At the time, our small staff included individuals with and without college degrees. I evaluated both groups of employees and learned they gave equal contributions to the team. Limiting our pool of potential candidates to university graduates would have hindered the growth of our company.
Accordingly, at NisonCo a college degree is not required to work. We believe degree inflation impedes hiring, increases payroll, encourages turnover and perpetuates social injustice. For these reasons, NisonCo encourages your cannabis company to emphasize a candidate’s skills and drive during the hiring process rather than their education.
Degree Inflation Increased in the Aftermath of The Great Recession
The Great Recession in 2008 caused a massive downturn in the U.S. economy. By 2010, the workforce had lost nearly 9 million jobs. The unemployed entered a tight labor market, and employers had the luxury of limiting potential candidates to college graduates. After the economic downturn, the number of employers requiring a college degree increased by 10%.
Employers added degree requirements to positions previously staffed by high school graduates. In 2015, 67% of job postings for production supervisors required a degree, while only 16% of current production supervisors possessed degrees. The Great Recession pushed Americans without a college degree out of the labor market.
Technological Advancements and Social Movements Confront Degree Inflation
The importance of technical skills began declining when automation entered the workforce in the 1980s. Employers suddenly required soft skills like relationship management to serve customers and resolve conflicts with partners successfully. A technologically advanced economy requires problem-solving and people skills. These skills are not usually acquired while attaining a college degree.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, companies laid off millions of employees. Many unemployed people reconsidered their relationship with work and decided to leave unfulfilling jobs. Employers are now in dire need of staff, and they no longer have the privilege of requiring a college degree during the hiring process. This degree inflation prevents recovery from the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
The Black Lives Matter movement highlighted the need to deliver social justice to historically marginalized communities. Americans are learning these communities need economic opportunities to achieve social justice. For this reason, employers are reexamining hiring practices and identifying barriers to equity. Employers like NisonCo have recognized since company inception that degree requirements impede social justice.
Degree Inflation is Bad for your Cannabis Business
The Harvard Business School polled business leaders on their perception of the performance of employees with and without degrees. The polling revealed the hidden costs of degree inflation: pending positions, payroll premiums, poor productivity and high turnover. Undoubtedly, degree inflation is not suitable for your cannabis business.
Most employers confirmed degree inflation prevents them from hiring equipped employees. They admit that candidates without degrees may possess the skills needed to thrive in most positions. Often, degree inflation prevents the discovery of competent candidates without degrees.
Most respondents revealed that degree inflation places a premium on wages for college graduates. Many respondents also confirmed those with and without degrees provide equal contributions to their teams. Degree inflation adds unnecessary payroll and training costs to a company’s budget.
Many employers believe staff members with university degrees demand higher salaries and benefits than staff without degrees. Additionally, most respondents admitted employees with degrees demonstrate low productivity and experience high job dissatisfaction. As a result, employers witness increased turnover among college graduates. In my experience, degree inflation can prevent employers from finding productive, satisfied, and loyal employees.
5 Ways Your Cannabis Company Can Oppose Degree Inflation
Review Your Company’s Job Descriptions and Assess Contributions to Degree Inflation
I recommend reviewing your company’s positions and determining if they are prone to degree inflation. Evaluate job descriptions written by leaders in the cannabis industry to understand if your degree requirements contribute to degree inflation and consider dropping degree requirements for positions that are common contributors to degree inflation.
Identify the Technical and Soft Skills Needed for Positions in Your Company
I advocate for analyzing the technical and soft skills needed for positions in your cannabis company. Review your job descriptions to determine if they require soft skills a candidate without a degree could possess. Delete degree requirements from job descriptions that do not need technical education provided by universities. Additionally, review the vetting process for candidates and remove onerous education requirements for positions requiring additional soft skills.
Analyze the Costs of Your Company’s Contribution to Degree Inflation
Understanding your cannabis company’s contribution to degree inflation lowers the costs of sustaining it. Developing metrics for evaluating contributions to degree inflation helps assess the charges to your company. Realizing your company’s potential cost savings helps maintain a commitment to combating degree inflation.
Develop Your Company’s Pipeline of Non-Degree Employees
Your cannabis company should develop alternative talent pipelines to attract non-degree employees. Investments in training create talent pipelines that give your company access to new pools of competent and productive candidates. Investments in training attract employees without college degrees and confront degree inflation.
Expand Your Company’s Territory for Recruiting New Employees
I recommend expanding your company’s geographic footprint while recruiting. Establishing relationships with partners in new territories provides access to new pools of non-degree talent. Expansion of your recruiting territory withstands degree inflation.
The Cannabis Industry Should Commit to Combatting Degree Inflation
Legalizing cannabis began as a social justice movement to benefit historically marginalized communities, and the maturation of our industry can deliver social justice to these communities. The cannabis industry has a prime opportunity to be an excellent example for other sectors confronting degree inflation. Our industry must demonstrate how different sectors can resist the urge to support it.
By Kelsey Cagle, Frank L. Dorman, Jessica Westland No Comments
Sample preparation is an essential part of method development and is critical to successful analytical determinations. With cannabis and cannabis products, the analyst is faced with a very challenging matrix and targets that may range from trace level through percent level thus placing considerable demands on the sample preparation techniques.1 The optimal sample preparation, or “extraction”, method for potency analysis of cannabis flower was determined using a methanol extraction coupled with filtration using regenerated cellulose filters.
In the United States (US), Canada, and other countries where medicinal and/or adult recreational cannabis has been legalized, regulatory entities require a panel of chemical tests to ensure quality and safety of the products prior to retail sales2. Cannabis testing can be divided into two different categories: Quality and Safety. Quality testing, which includes potency analysis (also known as cannabinoid testing or cannabinoid content), is performed to analyze the product in accordance with the producer/grower expectations and government regulations. Safety testing is conducted under regulatory guidelines to ensure that consumers are not exposed to toxicants such as pesticides, mycotoxins, heavy metals, residual solvents and microbial contaminates.
Potency testing evaluates the total amount of cannabinoid content, specifically focusing on tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). In the US, the biggest push for accurate total THC is to differentiate between hemp (legally grown for industrial or medicinal use), which is defined as cannabis sativa with a THC limit ≤ 0.3 %, and cannabis (Cannabis spp.), which is any cannabis plant with THC measured above 0.3 %3. Potency testing is typically performed by liquid chromatography (LC) with UV detection to determine the quantity of major cannabinoids.
In addition to reporting THC and CBD, their respective precursors are also important for reporting total potency. Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) is the inactive precursor to THC while cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) is the precursor to CBD.4,5
Methods and Materials
All samples were homogenized using an immersion blender with a dry material grinder. The nominal sample amounts were 200 mg of flower, 500 mg of edibles, and 250 mg of candy samples.
Potency Extraction Method (1)
Twenty milliliters (mL) of methanol (MeOH) was added to each sample. The samples were mechanically shaken for 10 minutes and centrifuged for 5 minutes.
Potency Extraction Method (2)
Ten mL of water was added to each sample. The samples were mechanically shaken for 10 minutes. 20 mL of acetonitrile (ACN) was then added to each sample and vortexed. An EN QuEChERS extraction salt packet was added to the sample. The samples were placed on a mechanical shaker for 2 minutes and then centrifuged for 5 minutes.
Each extract was split and evaluated with two filtration/cleanup steps: (1) a regenerated cellulose (RC) syringe filter (Agilent Technologies, 4 mm, 0.45 µm); (2) a PFTE syringe filter (Agilent Technologies, 4 mm, 0.45 µm). The final filtered extracts were injected into the ultra-performance liquid chromatograph coupled with a photodiode array detector (UPLC-PDA) for analysis.
Standards were obtained for the following cannabinoids at a concentration of 1 mg/mL: cannabidivarin (CBDV), tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), cannabidiol (CBD), cannabigerol (CBG), cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), cannabigerolic acid (CBGA), cannabinol (CBN), tetrahydrocannabinol (9-THC), cannabichromene (CBC), tetrahydrocannabinol acid (THCA). Equal volumes of each standard were mixed with MeOH to make a standard stock solution of 10 ug/mL. Serial dilutions were made from the stock to make concentrations of 5, 1, and 0.5 ug/mL for the calibration curve (Figure 1).
All instrument parameters were followed from Agilent Application Note 5991-9285EN.8 A UPLC with a PDA (Waters Corp, Milford, MA) detector was employed for potency analysis. An InfinityLab Poroshell 120 EC-C18, 3.0 x 50 mm, 2.7 um column (Agilent Technologies, Wilmington, DE) was utilized for compound separation. The organic mobile phase composition was 0.05 % (v/v) formic acid in HPLC grade MeOH and the aqueous mobile phase composition was 0.1 % (v/v) formic acid in HPLC grade water. The mobile phase gradient is shown in Table 1. The flow rate was 1 mL/min (9.5 minute total program), injection volume was 5 uL, and column temperature was 50 °C.
Discussion and Results
Table 2 summarizes the relative standard deviations (% RSD) were found for the THC calibrator (at 1 ug/mL) and one extract of a homogeneous sample (utilizing 7 replicates).
The cannabinoid potency of various cannabis plant and cannabis product samples were determined for the various extraction techniques In the chromatograms THC was observed ~8.08 minutes and CBD was observed ~4.61 minutes (Figure 2).
Total potency for THC & CBD were calculated for each sample using the equations below. Equation 1 was used because it accounts for the presence of THCA as well as the specific weight difference between THC and THCA (since THCA will eventually convert to THC, this needs to be accounted for in the calculations).
Table 3 shows the % THC and the total THC potency values calculated for the same flower samples that went through all four various potency sample preparation techniques as described earlier. Figure 3 also provides LC chromatograms for flower sample 03281913A-2 and edible sample 03281912-1.
The results indicated that with the “Potency Extraction Method 2” (ACN/QuEChERS extraction) coupled with the RC filter provided a bias of 7.29 % greater for total THC % over the other extraction techniques. Since the other 3 techniques provided total THC values within 2% of each other, the total THC of the sample is more likely ~14%.
Since the sample dilution for the above data set reduced the CBD content, an undiluted sample was run and analyzed. This data is reported in Table 4.
The CBD results indicated that with the “Potency Extraction Method 1” (methanol extraction) coupled with RC filter, allowed for a greater CBD recovery. This may indicate the loss of CBD with an ACN/QuEChERS extraction.
With an average ~14% total THC and 0.06% total CBD for a homogenous cannabis flower sample, the optimal sample preparation extraction was determined to be a methanol extraction coupled with filtration using a regenerated cellulose filter. Since potency continues to remain at the forefront of cannabis regulatory testing it is important to utilize the right sample prep for your cannabis samples.
Wang M, Wang YH, Avula B, Radwan MM, Wanas AS, Mehmedic Z, et al. Quantitative Determination of Cannabinoids in Cannabis and Cannabis Products Using Ultra-High-Performance Supercritical Fluid Chromatography and Diode Array/Mass Spectrometric Detection. Journal of Forensic Sciences 2016;62(3):602-11.
Matthew Curtis, Eric Fausett, Wendi A. Hale, Ron Honnold, Jessica Westland, Peter J. Stone, Jeffery S. Hollis, Anthony Macherone. Cannabis Science and Technology, September/October 2019, Volume 2, Issue 5.
Sian Ferguson. https://www.healthline.com/health/hemp-vs-marijuana. August 27, 2020.
Taschwer M, Schmid MG. Determination of the relative percentage distribution of THCA and 9-THC in herbal cannabis seized in Austria- Impact of different storage temperatures on stability. Forensic Science International 2015; 254:167-71.
This is the second piece in a two-part conversation with the founders of Veda Scientific, CEO Leo Welder and CSO Aldwin M. Anterola, PhD. To read part one, click here.
In part one, we chatted about their backgrounds, their approach to cannabis testing, their role in the greater industry and how they came into the cannabis industry.
In part two, we’re going down a few cannabis chemistry rabbit holes and realizing that what we don’t know is a lot more than what we do know. Join us as we delve into the world of volatile compounds, winemaking, the tastes and smells of cannabis, chicken adobo and much more.
Aaron: Alright so you mentioned the GCxGC/MS and your more advanced terpene analysis. How do you envision that instrument and that data helping your customers and/or the industry?
Leo: Some of the things that we envision will help is a better understanding of what compounds and what ratios will lead to desirable outcomes, things like better effects, aroma and flavor. By better understanding these things it’ll help the industry create better products.
I have a personal connection to this. My wife has some insomnia and she’s always had to take various forms of OTC pharmaceuticals to help with sleep. She tried using a 1:1 vape pen and it was a miracle worker for her for several months. The local dispensary had a sale on it, and she bought some extra. Unfortunately, even though she used it the same way as before, she got very serious anxiety, which obviously didn’t help her sleep. Every time she used the vapes from this same batch, she felt the same extreme anxiety. Sadly, she now had a lot of this product that she couldn’t use because it kept her awake rather than helping her sleep, so she went back to trying other OTC solutions. That’s a problem for both consumers and the industry at large. If people find something that works and provides a desired effect, they need to be able to rely on that consistency every time they purchase the product, leading to similar outcomes and not exaggerating the problem. That’s why I think consistency is so important. We’re taking two steps forward and one back when we have inconsistent products. How do we really grow and expand the availability of cannabis if we lose trust from our consumer base? What a lab can do and what we can do is provide data to cultivators and manufacturers to create that consistency and ultimately allow the market to expand into other demographics that are currently wary and less tolerant of that variance.
On a similar note, we have been having a lot of discussions with the CESC [Clinical Endocannabinoid System Consortium] down in San Diego. They are an advanced cannabis research group that we have been working with for over a year. We’ve started looking at the idea of varietals. To be more specific, because I’m not a wine connoisseur, varietals are the pinot noirs, the cabernets and sauvignon blancs of the industry. In the cannabis industry, consumers have indica and sativa, though we still argue over what that concept really means, if anything. But for the sake of argument, let’s say we have this dichotomy to use as a foundational decision tool for consumers- call it the red and white wine of the cannabis industry. How inaccessible would wine be if we just had red or white? Imagine if you went to a dinner party, really liked the wine you were drinking, and the host could only tell you that it was a red wine. You can’t go to a wine store and expect to find something similar to that wine if the only information you have is “red.” At a minimum, you need a category. So that’s what varietals are, the categories. The data that we can produce could help people in the industry who identify and establish the varietals based on their expertise as connoisseurs and product experts to find what those differences are chemically. Similarly, we’re also looking at appellation designations in California. So, we want to help provide tools for farmers to identify unique characteristics in their flower that would give them ability to claim and prove appellation designation.
Aldwin: The GCxGC/MS allows us to find more things besides the typical terpene profile with 20 or 40 terpenes. It allows us to go beyond those terpenes. The issue sometimes is that with a typical one-dimensional GC method, sure you could probably separate and find more terpenes, but the one dimension is not enough to separate everything that coelutes. And it’s not just terpenes. Some terpenes coelute with one another and that’s why people can see this inconsistency. Especially if you use a detector like an FID, we can see the compound limonene on the chromatogram, but there’s another terpene in there that is unknown that coelutes with limonene. So, this instrument is helping us get past the coeluting issue and solve it so that we know what peaks represent what terpenes.
The other bonus with our GCxGC/MS is that the coeluting compounds that were masked behind other terpenes are now revealed. There is a second dimension in the chromatogram where we can now detect some compounds in cannabis that would be hiding behind these large peaks if it were just a one-dimensional GC. Besides terpenes, we’ve found esters, alkanes, fatty acids, ketones, alcohols and aldehydes, as well as thiols. The terpenes are so plentiful in cannabis that these other compounds present at lower levels cannot be seen with just one-dimensional GC. There are just so many compounds in cannabis that the ones in small amounts are often masked. My analogy to highlight the importance of these minor compounds is like a dish; I am from the Philippines and I like chicken adobo. My father does it differently from my mom and someone else will do it differently in a different region. The base of the sauce is vinegar and soy sauce, but some people will do it differently and maybe add some bay leaf, garlic, pepper, or a touch of another spice. It’s still chicken adobo, but it tastes differently. Just like in cannabis, where yes, you have the same amount of THC in two different plants, but it’s still giving you a different experience. Some people say it’s because of terpenes, which is true in a lot of cases, but there are a lot of other volatile compounds that would explain better why certain dishes taste different.
Leo: There’s been some recent developments too here that show it’s very significant. It’s like the difference between bland and spicy. And it could be the thiol. We identified a thiol in cannabis at the same time as other scientists reported an article that just came out on this subject.
Aldwin: Thiols are sulfur containing compounds that produce very powerful odors, giving cannabis the skunky smell. Skunks also produce thiols. It is very potent; you only need a little bit. It turns out that yes, that paper described thiols and we also saw them in our GCxGC/MS. These are the kinds of things that the GCxGC can show you. Those very tiny amounts of compounds that can have a very powerful impact. That’s one that we know for sure is important because it’s not just us that’s finding out that GCxGC can detect this.
Not everything is about THC or the high amount of the compounds in the flower. This paper and our concurrent findings indicated that the skunkier smelling strains contained very small amounts of thiols and you can recognize their presence quite readily. It’s not a terpene, but it’s producing a distinct flavor and a powerful smell.
Aaron: Okay, so why is this useful? Why is it so important?
Leo: I would say two things in particular that we know of that are issues currently, both related to scents. We mentioned this earlier. We do know that farmers with breeding programs are trying to target particularly popular or attractive scent profiles, whether it be a gas or fruity aroma. Right now, when they get the flower tested and review the terpene profile, it isn’t enough information to help them identify what makes them chemically distinct. We hear time and again that farmers will say their terpene profile is not helpful in identifying specific scents and characteristics. They are looking for a fingerprint. They want to be able to identify a group of plants that have a similar smell and they want a fingerprint of that plant to test for. Otherwise, you have to sniff every plant and smell the ones that are most characteristic of what they’re targeting. For larger operations, walking through and smelling thousands of plants isn’t feasible.
Once we can identify that fingerprint, and we know which compounds in which ratios are creating the targeted aroma, we can run tests to help them find the best plants for breeding purposes. It’s about reproducibility and scalability.
Another value is helping people who are trying to categorize oils and strains into particular odor categories, similar to the varietals concept we’ve been talking about. Currently, we know that when manufacturers send multiple samples of oils with the same or similar scent to be tested, the results are coming back with significantly different terpene profiles. There is not enough data for them to chemically categorize products. It’s not that their categories are wrong, it’s just that the data is not available to help them find those boundaries.
Those are two issues that we know from conversations with customers that this particular piece of equipment can address.
Aldwin: Let’s start from what we find, meaning if you are using the GCxGC/MS, we are finding more terpenes that nobody else would be looking at. We have data that shows, for example, that certain standards are accounting for 60% or so of total terpene content. So a large percent is accounted for, but there is still quite a bit missing. For some strains there are terpenes that are not in common reference standards. Being able to know that and identify the reason why we have different terpenes in here unaccounted for is big. There are other things there beyond the standard terpenes.
What excites me sometimes is that I see some terpenes that are known to have some properties, either medical or antibacterial, etc. If you find that terpene looking beyond the list, you’ll find terpenes that are found in things like hardwood or perfumes, things that we don’t necessarily associate with the common cannabis terpenes. If you’re just looking for the limited number of terpenes, you are missing some things that you might discover or some things that might help explain results.
Leo: It’s also absolutely necessary for the medical side of things. Because of the federal limitations, cannabis hasn’t been researched nearly enough. We’re missing a lot of data on all of the active compounds in cannabis. We are finally starting to move into an era where that will soon be addressed. In order for certain medical studies to be successful, we need to have data showing what compounds are in what plants.
Drs. John Abrams and Jean Talleyrand of the CESC launched the Dosing Project in 2016. They have been studying the impact of cannabis flower for indications such as pain mitigation and sleep improvement, and now more recently mood, and appetite modulation. They categorize the THC & CBD content as well as flower aroma into 3 cannabinoid and 3 odor profiles. They are able to acquire quite a bit of data about how odor correlates with the outcomes. Because they were initially limited in terms of underlying natural product content data, they contacted us when they found out we acquired this equipment in 2020, and have stated that they are certain the data we will now be producing will take their research to the next level of understanding.
Aldwin: For quality control you are looking at specific things that would reflect properties in cannabis. There should be a 1:1 correspondence between properties observed and what we are measuring. The current assumption is that the terpenes we are looking at will tell us everything about how people would like it, with regards to flavor and smell preference. But we know for a fact that the limited terpenes most labs are measuring do not encapsulate everything. So, it is important for QC purposes to know for this particular strain or product, which everyone liked, what is it in there that makes everybody like it? If you just look at the typical terpene profile, you’ll find something close, but not exact. The GCxGC/MS shows us that maybe there’s something else that gives it a preferred property or a particular smell that we can explain and track. In one batch of flower, the consumer experiences it a certain way, and for another batch people experience it another way. We’d like to be able to understand what those differences are batch to batch so we can replicate the experience and figure out what’s in it that people like. That’s what I mean by consistency and quality control; the more you can measure, the more you can see.
Aldwin: Speaking to authenticity as well, in a breeding example, some growers will have this strain that they grew, or at least this is what they claim it to be, but what are the components that make those strains unique? The more analytes you can detect, the more you can authenticate the plant. Is this really OG Kush? Is this the same OG Kush that I’ve had before? Using the GCxGC/MS and comparing analytes, we can find authenticity in strains by finding all of the metabolites and analytes and comparing two strains. Of course, there is also adulteration- Some people will claim they have one strain that smells like blueberries, but we find a compound in it that comes from outside of cannabis, such as added terpenes. Proving that your cannabis is actually pure cannabis or proving that something has added terpenes is possible because we can see things in there that don’t come from cannabis. The GCxGC/MS can be used as a tool for proving authenticity or proving adulteration as well. If you want to trademark a particular strain, we can help with claiming intellectual property. For example, if you want to trademark, register or patent a new product, it will be good to have more data. More data allows for better description of your product and the ability to prove that it is yours.
Leo: One thing that I think is a very interesting use case is proving the appellations. It is our understanding that California rolled out a procedure for growers to claim an appellation, but with strict rules around it. Within those rules, they need to prove uniqueness of growing products in specific regions. The GCxGC/MS can help in proving uniqueness by growing two different strains in two different regions, mapping out the differences and seeing what makes a region’s cannabis unique. It’s valuable for growers in California, Oregon, Colorado to be able to prove how unique their products are. To prove the differences between cannabis grown in Northern California versus plants grown along the Central Coast. And of course, for people across the world to be able to really tell a story and prove what makes their cannabis different and special. To be able to authenticate and understand, we need to have more comprehensive data about properties in those strains. It could be terpenes, it could be esters or thiols. That’s what we’re excited about.
Aaron: From your perspective, what are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities ahead for the cannabis industry?
Aldwin: Getting ready for federal legalization is both a challenge and opportunity. A challenge because when it is federally legal, there will be more regulations and more regulators. It is also a challenge because there will be more businesses, more competition, that might get into the industry. It is opening up to other players, much bigger players. Big tobacco, mega labs and massive diagnostic testing companies might participate, which will be a challenge for us.
But it’s also an opportunity for us to serve more customers, to be more established at the federal level, to move to interstate commerce. The opportunity is to be ready here and now while other people are not here yet.
Another challenge and opportunity is education. Educating consumers and non-consumers. We have to realize and accept that cannabis is not for everybody, but everyone is a stakeholder, because they are our neighbors, parents or part of the medical establishment. It would be a disservice not to educate the non-consumers.
The medical establishment, they don’t have to be consumers but they need to know about cannabis. They don’t know as much as they should about cannabis and they need to know more, like how it could affect their patients for better or for worse, so they know how to help their patients better. There could be drug interactions that could affect the potency of other drugs. They need to know these things. Educating them about cannabis is a challenge. It’s also an opportunity for us to now come in and say that cannabis is here to stay and be consumed by more and more people, so we better know how to deal with it from a medical perspective.“This bucking bronco of a growth style will throw a lot of people off. We need to figure out what we can grab on to and ride out these waves.”
Law enforcement needs to be educated too. What THC level in the blood indicates impairment? It is still a challenge because we’re not there yet, we don’t have that answer quite yet. And it’s an opportunity to help educate and to find more answers for these stakeholders, so we can have regulations that make sense.
Leo: To Aldwin’s point, the biggest opportunity comes along with federal legalization as well as expanding the customer base beyond the traditional market. Since adult use was legalized in CA, we haven’t yet seen the significant expansion of the consumer population. We’re primarily seeing a legal serving of the market that already existed before legalization.
The reality is cannabis can be used in different ways than what we think of. We know it has medical benefits and we know it is enjoyed recreationally by people looking for high THC content and the highest high. But there is also this middle ground, much like the difference between drinking moonshine and having a glass of wine at dinner. The wine at dinner industry is much bigger than the mason jar moonshine industry. That’s really where the opportunity is. What’s the appeal to the broader market? That will be a big challenge, but it’s inevitable. It comes from everything we’ve talked about today, consistency in products, educating people about cannabis, normalizing it to a certain degree, varietals and appellations.
As an entrepreneur, I’m looking at this from a business perspective. Everyone talks about the hockey stick growth chart, but it is a very wavy hockey stick. I expect to see very significant growth in the industry for a while, but it will have a lot of peaks and valleys. It’ll essentially be whiplash. We are seeing this in California right now, with sky high prices in flower last year down to bottom of the barrel prices this year. We have to all figure out how to hang on. This bucking bronco of a growth style will throw a lot of people off. We need to figure out what we can grab on to and ride out these waves. The good ones will be fun and the bad ones will be painful and we know they are coming again and again and again. That’s the biggest challenge. People say ‘expect tomorrow to look a lot like today,’ but you really can’t expect tomorrow to look anything like today in the cannabis industry. Tomorrow will be totally different from today. We need to figure out, within all this chaos, what can we hang on to and keep riding the upward trajectory without getting thrown off the bronco.
Leo Welder, CEO of Veda Scientific, founded the business with Aldwin M. Anterola, PhD in July of 2019. A serial entrepreneur with experience in a variety of markets, he came to the industry with an intrigue for cannabis testing and analysis. After teaming up with Dr. Anterola, co-founder and chief science officer at Veda Scientific, they came together with the purpose of unlocking possibilities in cannabis. From the beginning, they set out with a heavy scientific interest in furthering the industry from a perspective of innovation and research.
Through discussing their clients’ needs and understanding their complex problems, the two realized they wanted to start a lab that goes well beyond the normal regulatory compliance testing. Innovation in cannabis looks like a lot of things: new formulations for infused products, better designs for vaping technology or new blends of genetics creating unique strains, to name a few. For the folks at Veda Scientific, innovation is about rigorous and concentrated research and development testing.
With the help of some very sophisticated analytical chemistry instruments, their team is working on better understanding how volatile compounds play a part in the chemometrics of cannabis. From varietals and appellations to skunky smells, their research in the chemistry of cannabis is astounding – and they’ve only begun to scratch the surface.
In this two-part series, we discuss their approach to cannabis testing, their role in the greater industry as a whole and we go down a few cannabis chemistry rabbit holes and find out that what we don’t know is a lot more than what we do know. In part one, we get into their backgrounds, how they came into the cannabis industry and how they are carving out their niche. Stay tuned for part two next week where we delve deep into the world of volatile compounds, winemaking, the tastes and smells of cannabis and chicken adobo.
Aaron G. Biros: Tell me about how you and your team came to launch Veda, how you entered the cannabis space and what Veda’s approach is to the role of testing labs in the broader cannabis industry.
Leo Welder: I’m an entrepreneur. This is my third significant venture in the last fifteen years or so. So, I was intrigued by cannabis legalization broadly, because it is such a unique time in our history. I was always interested in participating in the industry in some way, but I didn’t see where would be a good fit for me. I used to meet monthly with a group of friends and fellow entrepreneurs for dinner and discussions and one member started working on the software side of the industry. He mentioned the testing element of cannabis in one of our meetings. I latched on to that and was intrigued by the concept of testing cannabis. I began to research it and found the role that testing plays in the cannabis industry is really significant. I found out that regulators rely pretty heavily on labs to make sure that products are safe, labels are accurate and that consumers have some protections. So, I thought that this is a space that I thought I could really find a calling in.
So, from that point I knew I needed to find a subject matter expert, because I am not one. I have business skills and experience in some technical fields but I am not a cannabis testing expert by any means. So, with that I started to look at a few different markets that I thought may have opportunity for a new lab, and I came across Aldwin’s business; he had a cannabis testing lab in Illinois at that time. I reached out to him, talked to him about my vision for the space and his thoughts and his vision and we really started to come together. From there, we researched various markets and ultimately chose to approach Santa Barbara County as our first foray together into the cannabis testing market.
Aldwin M. Anterola: As Leo mentioned, he was looking for a subject matter expert and I am very much interested in plant biochemistry. Which means I like to study how plants make these compounds that are very useful to us. For my PhD [in plant physiology], I was studying how cell cultures of loblolly pine produce lignin. Our lab was interested in how pine trees produce lignin, which is what makes up wood. Wood comes from phenolic compounds. You’ve probably heard of antioxidants and flavonoids – those are phenolic compounds. After my PhD, I wanted to do something different so I decided to work with terpenes.
I picked a very important terpene in our field, an anti-cancer compound called Taxol, produced from the bark of the yew tree. You have to cut trees to harvest it. We have ways of synthesizing it now. But at that time, we were trying to figure out how the tree produces that terpene. Of course, I’m interested in any compound that plants make. My interest in terpenes led me to cannabinoids which turn out to be terpenophenolics, thus combining the two interests in my professional field.
So that’s the scientific and intellectual side of why I became interested in cannabis, but practically speaking I got into cannabis because of a consulting offer. A company was applying for a cultivation license, wanted to have a laboratory component of their business in their application, and hired me to write that part of their application. I was very familiar with HPLC, and had a GC/MS in the lab. I also have a background in microbiology and molecular biology so I can cover every test required at that time, and I knew I could research the other analytical techniques if necessary.
So, they did not get the license, but I figured I’d take what I wrote, once I received permission, and set up an independent laboratory together. But it’s hard to run a lab and be a professor at the same time. Also, the busines side of running a lab is something that I am not an expert in. Fortunately, Leo found me. Before that, I really got excited about this new industry. The concept of cannabis being now accessible to more people is so interesting to me because of how new everything is. I wanted to be involved in an industry like this and help in making it safe while satisfying my curiosity in this new field of research. As a scientist, those are the things that excite us: the things we didn’t have access to, we can now do. It opens up a whole new room that we want to unlock. It was my intellectual curiosity that really drove me. This opened up new research avenues for me as well as other ventures if you will. How can I be more involved? I thought to myself.
Back in 2014, I introduced cannabis research to our university [Southern Illinois University] and set up an industrial hemp program, which was DEA-licensed I gathered faculty that would be interested in studying hemp and cannabis and we now have a whole cannabis science center at the university. I teach a course in cannabis biology and because I also teach medical botany to undergraduate students, I was able to introduce [premed] students to the endocannabinoid system. Anyway, I can go on and on.
Outside of that I became involved with the AOAC and ASTM, and became a qualified assessor for ISO 17025:2017. I have been a member of the American Chemical Society since 2000 but there were no cannabis related activities there yet until relatively recently. But when they had the new cannabis chemistry subdivision, I am happy to participate in there as well . There are many avenues that I took to begin dabbling with cannabis, be it research, nonprofits, teaching, testing and more. Cannabis has basically infiltrated all areas of what I do as an academic.
Leo: I read his resume and I was like this is the guy! So back to your question, what’s Veda’s role as a testing lab in this space? What are we trying to build? We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what we wanted to be in this space. We came to understand that labs are not the tip of the spear for the market; that would be the growers, the retailers and the processors. We are a support, a service. We see ourselves as a humble, but competent guide. We provide the data for the tip of the spear, the people pushing the industry forward with support, data and the services to make sure they have the tools they need to build these great companies and great products with good cultivation practices and more, leading everyone to the next level of the cannabis industry. Our job is to support innovation, to provide quality compliance testing, to of course ensure safety, while also providing great R&D to these innovative companies.
Aldwin: I’d like to add a bit to that thought. Okay so that’s who we are, but what are we not? Because as Leo said I had a testing lab before we met [Advanced Herbal Analytics]. From there, I approach it as safety testing, making sure that before it gets to the end consumer, we are sort of like gate keepers keeping consumers safe. That’s one side to it, but we are not the people who are trying to make sure that none of the products get to the market. For some, that’s how we’re treated as.
People often look at testing labs like the police. We are not the people trying to limit products to market. Our approach is not to find faults. There is another way of being a testing lab that is less about finding faults in products and more about finding uniqueness. What makes your product different? With this new approach, we are much more focused on helping the best products make it to the shelves.
Aaron: Given that all state licensed labs have to provide the same tests as the other labs in that state, how does Veda differentiate itself?
Leo: Location was the first thing. We picked Santa Barbara County intentionally. We knew that some of the biggest operators, some of the most forward-thinking innovators were setting up shop here. Looking down the road, not just this year or next year but very long term, we wanted to start building a great, sustainable company. We wanted to build a brand that those kinds of companies would be receptive to. Building better and greater products. There’s one other lab in the county and that’s it. Whereas there are clusters of labs in other parts of the state. Part of the draw to Santa Barbara for us was that it is such a small, tight-knit community. We have worked very hard to build relationships in our community and to understand their challenges, helping them however we can.
Location and relationships. Getting to know the challenges that different size customers face, be it our greenhouse customers versus outdoor customers, or large-scale operations versus smaller manufacturing operations, the challenges are all different. Some people care about turnaround times, some more about R&D. If we understand our client’s problems, then we can provide better service. We see ourselves as problem solvers. We lean heavily on our technical team members like Aldwin, who not only have tremendous amounts of experience and education, but also great networks to utilize when a customer needs help, even when it falls outside of our local expertise.
Last but certainly not least is the advanced R&D testing that we do. When we first started, we started talking to farmers and manufacturers trying to understand their challenges. What data were they not getting? How would a testing lab better serve them? So, we started investing strategically in certain instruments that would allow us to better serve them. We’ll get into this later as well, but we invested in a GCxGC/MS, which allows us to get more visibility into things beyond the typical panels, like more terpenes and other volatile compounds including thiols and esters. We did that because we knew there is value in that. The data our customers were getting prior just wasn’t enough to put together really great breeding programs or to manufacture really consistent products, you know, to move toward that next level of innovation in the industry.
Aldwin: Leo mentioned advanced R&D and it’s basically the same approach that I mentioned before. It’s not just telling you what you can and cannot do. It’s about asking them what do you want to do and what do you want from a lab? If we have a problem, let’s see if we can solve it. That’s how the GCxGC/MS came into play because we knew there was a need to test for many terpenes and other volatile compounds. The common complaint we received was why two terpene profiles differ so much from each other, even from the same genetics.
This is something that would actually give the customer, the cultivator or the manufacturer: data about their product that they can actually use. For consistency, for better marketing and other reasons. We are trying to help them answer the questions of ‘how can I make my product better?’
You know, for example, clients would tell us they want something that has a specific taste or smells a certain way. Nobody is telling them what makes the flavor or smell. There is a need there that we can fill. We are trying to provide data that they, the customers, need so that they can improve their breeding programs or their formulations. Data they can use, not just data they need in order to comply with regulations. They would ask us what we can do. We listen to our customers and we try and help as best we can. We don’t know every answer. We are discovering there is a lot more to terpenes than what you can find on a traditional one dimensional gas chromatogram. Some of the terpene data that our clients had previously is not really actionable data, which is where the GCxGC/MS is helping us.
In part two, we delve deep into the world of volatile compounds, winemaking, the tastes and smells of cannabis and chicken adobo. Click here to read part two.
According to a press release sent out last week, Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures (CBDV) has expanded their testing capabilities considerably with the new addition of a vapor/smoke analyzer. CBDV is a licensed cannabis and psilocybin research laboratory embedded in the University of British Columbia, led by CEO Dr. Markus Roggen.
The ability to analyze vapor and smoke is a relatively novel concept for the cannabis space, but has been utilized by the tobacco industry for years now. In the early days of adult-use cannabis legalization in the United States, stringent testing regulations for contaminants like pesticides were adopted out of a fear for what would happen when consumers ingest toxic levels of contaminants.
One of the common refrains iterated throughout the industry over the past ten years was that there just wasn’t enough research on how different contaminants affect patients and consumers when burned and inhaled. We still don’t know too much about what happens when someone smokes a dangerous pesticide, such as myclobutanil. Beyond just contaminants, the new technology allows for companies to measure precise levels of cannabinoids in vapor and smoke, getting a more accurate reading on what cannabinoids are actually making it to the end user.
This new development coming from our neighbor to the north could lead to a breakthrough in the cannabis lab testing and research space. CBDV claims they can now analyze cannabis material with a much more in-depth analysis than basic compliance testing labs. The new technology for analysis of smoke, vapor, plant material and formulations allows companies to thoroughly understand their materials in each stage of the product formulation process, all the way to product consumption.
Beyond just smoke and vapor analysis CBDV also offers NMR spectroscopy, metabolomics, nanoparticle characterization, computational modeling and other testing services that go far beyond the traditional compliance testing gamut.
“Our new services offer comprehensive insights into plant material, extracts, end-products and even the smoke/vapor by using state-of-the-art analytical instruments,” says Dr. Roggen. “By understanding the chemical fingerprint of the material, cannabis producers can eliminate impurities, adjust potencies, and optimize extraction processes before wasting money and resources on producing inconsistent end products. As a chemist I am really excited about adding NMR and high-res mass spectroscopy to the cannabis testing offerings.”
Plant genetics are an important consideration for cultivators planning to grow cannabis crops. Genetics can affect how well a plant grows in a particular environment under various conditions and have a major impact on the production of cannabinoids, terpenes as well as other molecules and traits expressed by the plant.
Front Range Biosciences is a hemp and cannabis genetics platform company, leveraging proprietary next generation breeding and Clean Stock® tissue culture nursery technologies to develop new varieties for a broad range of product applications in the hemp and cannabis industries. FRB has global reach through facilities in Colorado, California and Wisconsin, and a partnership with the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics in Barcelona, Spain. FRB is headquartered in Lafayette, Colorado.
We spoke with Jonathan Vaught, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of Front Range Biosciences. Jonathan co-founded Front Range in 2015 after a successful career in the diagnostics and food testing industries.
Jonathan Vaught: This was a collaborative project between the BioServe group at the University of Colorado Boulder, which is a part of their aerospace engineering program. They do research on the International Space Station, and they have for quite some time. We partnered with them and another company, Space Technology Holdings, a group that’s working on applications of space travel and space research. We teamed up to send tissue culture samples to the space station and let them sit in zero gravity at the space station for about a month, and then go through the reentry process and come back to Earth. We brought them back in the lab to perform some genomic analyses and try to understand if there’s any underlying genetic changes in terms of the plants being in that environment. We wanted to know if there was anything interesting that we could learn by putting these plant stem cells and tissue cultures in an extreme environment to look for stress response, and some other possible changes that might occur to the plants by going through those conditions.
Aaron: That’s an interesting project! Are there any trends that you’re following in the industry?
Jon: We’re excited to see ongoing legalization efforts around the world. We’ve seen continued progress here in the United States. We still have a long way to go, but we’re excited to see the additional markets coming onboard and regulations moving in the right direction. Also, we’re excited to see some of the restorative justice programs that have come out.
Aaron: How did you get involved at Front Range Biosciences?
Jon: It really starts with my background and what I was doing before Front Range Biosciences. I’ve spent more than 15 years developing commercializing technologies in human diagnostics, food safety and now agriculture.
I started my career during graduate school in biotech at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I helped develop some of the core technology for a human diagnostic startup company called Somalogic here in Colorado. I went to work for them after finishing my dissertation work and spent about six years there helping them grow that company. We ended up building the world’s largest protein biomarker discovery platform primarily serving pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and doctors, with personalized medicine and lab tests for things like early detection of chronic illness, cancer, heart disease and inflammation.
I then went to another startup company called Beacon Biotech, that was interested in food safety. There I helped develop some similar technologies for detecting food-borne illness — things like salmonella, listeria and E. coli. That was my introduction to big food and big agriculture. From there, I went to help start another company called Velocity Science that was also in the human diagnostic space.
Along the way, I started a 501(c)3 nonprofit called Mountain Flower Goat Dairy, a dairy and educational non-profit that had a community milk-share, which included summer camps and workshops for people to learn about local and sustainable agriculture. I became more and more interested in agriculture and decided to take my career in that path and that’s really what set me up to start Front Range Biosciences.
Aaron: Do you have any co-founders?
Jon: I have two other co-founders. They both played various roles over the last four years. One was another scientist, Chris Zalewski, PhD. He currently works in the R&D department and helps oversee several different parts of the company including pathology and product development. My other co-founder, Nick Hofmeister served as chief strategic officer for the last few years, and has helped raise the majority of our funding. We’ve raised over $45 million dollars, and he played a big role in that.
Aaron: What makes you different from other cannabis seed companies?
John: We’ve built the first true cannabis genetics platform. What I mean by that is we built a platform that allows us to develop and produce new plant varieties that support both the hemp and the cannabis markets. To us, it’s all cannabis. Hemp and cannabis are scientifically the same plant. They just have different regulatory environments, different products and different markets, but we stay focused on the plant. Our platform is built on several different pillars. Genetics are one of the core pieces, and by genetics I mean, everything from molecular based breeding to marker assisted breeding to large germplasm collections. We collect different varieties of germplasm, or seed, from all over the world and use those to mix and match and breed for specific traits. We also have large nursery programs. Another one of our pillars of the platform includes greenhouse nursery production — everything from flowering cannabis plants to producing cannabis seeds to cloning and producing mother plants and rooted cuttings or clones.
Then tissue culture is another part of the platform, it’s basically the laboratory version of a greenhouse nursery. It’s housed in a sterile environment and allows us to produce plants that are clean and healthy. It’s a much more effective, modern way to manage the nursery. It’s part of our clean stock program, where we start clean, stay clean, and you can finish clean. It’s really built on all of those different pieces.
We also have capabilities in analytical chemistry and pathology, that allow us to better understand what drives performance and the plants, and both different regions as well as different cannabinoid products or terpene products. All of the science and capabilities of the platform are what allow us to create new varieties faster, better, stronger.
Aaron: It sounds like you’re vertically integrated on the front-end of cannabis cultivation.
Jon: Absolutely, that’s a great way to think about it.
The last piece I’d say is that we have areas of research and development that cover the full span of multiple product lines. We think about it from an ingredient perspective. Cannabinoids and terpenes are certainly what drive a large part of the cannabis market in terms of edibles, smokable flower, vapes and extracts and the different effects and flavors that you get. We also are looking at other ingredients, like plant-based protein and hemp as a viable protein source and the ability for hemp to produce valuable fiber for textiles, as well as industrial building materials and applications.
Lastly, there are additional small molecules that we’re working on as well from a food ingredients perspective. There are all kinds of interesting compounds. Everybody talks about the cannabinoids and terpenes, but there are also things like flavonoids, and some other very interesting chemistries that we’re working on as well.
Aaron: What geographies are you currently in?
Jon: Colorado and California primarily and we have a small R&D partnership in Barcelona.
Aaron: Do you have plans for expansion beyond that?
Jon: Our current headquarters are out of Colorado, and most of our Colorado operations right now are all hemp. Our hemp business is national and international.
We work with a licensed cannabis nursery partner in California which is our primary focus for that market, but we will be expanding the cannabis genetics and nursery program into Colorado next year. From a regulated cannabis perspective, that’s the first move. Beyond that, we’re in conversations with some of the multi-state operators and cannabis brands that are emerging to talk about how to leverage our technology and our genetics platform across some of the other markets.
Aaron: How do you think about genetics in your products?
Jon: Genetics means a lot of things to different folks depending on your vantage point and where you sit in the supply chain. Our business model is based on selling plants and seeds. At the end of the day, we don’t develop oils, extracts and products specifically, but we develop the genetics behind those products.
For us, it’s not only about developing genetics that have the unique qualities or ingredients that a product company might want like CBD, or other minor cannabinoids like THCV for example, but also about making sure that those plants can be produced efficiently and effectively. The first step is to introduce the ingredient to the product. Then the second step is to make sure that growers can grow and produce the plant. That way they can stabilize their supply chain for their product line. Whether it’s for a smokable flower product, or a vape product, or an edible product, it’s really important to make sure that they can reproduce it. That’s really how we think about genetics.
Aaron: What is a smart plant? That’s something I saw on your website.
Jon: It’s really about plants that perform under specific growing regions, or growing conditions. For example, in hemp, it’s one thing to produce CBD or CBG. It’s another thing to be able to produce it efficiently in five different microclimates around the U.S. Growing hemp in Florida or Alabama down on the Gulf Coast versus growing on the Pacific Northwest coast of Washington, or Oregon are two very different growing conditions that require smart plants. Meaning they can grow and thrive in each of those conditions and still produce the intended product. Generally, the different regions don’t overlap. The genetics that you would grow in Pacific Northwest are not going to do as well as some better selected varieties for the South East.
It’s not only different outdoor growing regions, but it’s different production styles too. When you think about regulated cannabis the difference between outdoor and indoor greenhouse is mixed light production. Even with hydroponic type growing methods, there are lots of different ways to grow and produce this plant and it’s not a one size fits all. It’s really about plants that perform well, whether it’s different regions in the United States in outdoor production or different indoor greenhouses with mixed lights and production methods.
Aaron: You market CBG hemp as a product line. What made you start with CBG? Is that a pull from the market or something you guys see trending?
Jon: So I think it’s a little bit of both. We offer CBD dominant varieties and CBG dominant varieties of hemp. We also now have other cannabinoids in the pipeline that we’ll be putting out in different varieties next year. Things like CBC as well as varins, or propyl cannabinoids. Also things like CBDV, CBCV, or CBGV, which are the propylcannabinoid versions of the more familiar compounds.
There was a lot of market demand for CBG. It was a fairly easy cannabinoid to produce as a single dominant cannabinoid similar to CBD or THC. There’s a lot of up-and-coming demand for some of the other minor cannabinoids. Up until a few years ago, CBD was considered a minor cannabinoid. It wasn’t until Charlotte’s Web in the Sanjay Gupta story that it became a major cannabinoid. So I think we see some level of market pull across the category.
On the flip side of that, we have one of the world’s largest R&D teams and consolidated expertise in terms of cannabis. We see the potential for minor cannabinoids, and even terpenes and other compounds like flavonoids to have wide ranging implications in human health. Everything from wellness products, to active pharmaceutical ingredients, to recreational products. From our perspective, that’s the reason why we’re pushing these ingredients. We believe that there are a lot of good products that come out of this work and the genetics that produce these minor cannabinoids.
Aaron: Okay, great. And then last question, is there anything you’re interested in learning more about?
Jon: I think the most exciting thing for me, given my background in clinical diagnostics and human health, is to see more data around how all of these different compounds of the plant can support improved wellness, health and nutrition. I think we’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg. This type of research and data collection takes years, even decades, especially to see outcomes over time of people using these products. I’m really excited to see more of that and also hopefully be able to make stronger conclusions about some of the benefits that can be had from this plant.
Aaron: That’s the end of the interview, thanks Jon!
According to a press release, Shimadzu Scientific Instruments and Front Range Biosciences (FRB) announced a partnership where they will establish the FRB Hemp Science Center of Excellence. The center will focus on genetics, biobanking, breeding and analysis, all with Shimadzu instrumentation. The center will host scientists performing chemical and genetic analytical research to “support the development of new hemp varieties for the production of cannabinoids, terpenoids and other compounds for medical and wellness applications; lipid, wax and protein ingredients for food and cosmetics applications; and fiber for industrial applications.”
Located at FRB’s new headquarters in Boulder, CO, the new center will allow for collaborative efforts between researchers from the public and private sectors like academic, nonprofit and government agencies. The center will expand FRB’s collaboration with the University of Colorado at Boulder. Researchers at other institutions can apply for grants to support students, postdoctoral candidates and other researchers at the new center.
Dr. Jonathan Vaught, CEO of FRB, says they’re honored to work with Shimadzu and their instrumentation. “Front Range Biosciences is honored to partner with the world-class team at Shimadzu. Combining their innovative and proven cannabis and hemp analytical instrumentation solutions with our next-generation breeding program, we will be well positioned to continue advancing the industry with data-driven science so we can harness the incredible potential of this versatile plant for therapeutic, wellness, nutrition and industrial applications,” says Dr. Vaught. “We are confident that with Shimadzu’s cutting-edge technology, we will be able to drive forward-thinking solutions in this growing industry to better serve farmers, producers and consumers.”
In a press release published last week, Cannabis Testing Laboratories (CTL) announced they have achieved ISO 17025 accreditation as part of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture requirements for cannabis labs operating in the state. CTL is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Doane University, a liberal arts college in Crete, Nebraska.
According to the press release, CTL will be renting space on Doane University’s campus for its primary laboratory. Doane University is working on an effort to foster innovation where they create spaces on campus for entrepreneurial startups. Dr. Andrea Holmes, Director of Cannabis Studies and Professor of Chemistry at Doane University, is the founder of CTL. Dr. Arin Sutlief is the director of the laboratory as well, which means CTL is led by an all-female management team.
Dr. Holmes says hemp testing should be a priority for the state’s new industry. “Being the first ISO-accredited and state approved cannabis testing laboratory in Nebraska will allow farmers, processors, vendors, and even consumers of CBD and hemp products to have local access to high-quality and reliable testing,” says Dr. Holmes. “For farmers, continuous testing is of utmost importance so they don’t grow hemp over 0.3% total THC levels, at which point hemp is categorized as marijuana, which is currently illegal in Nebraska. Consumers of CBD products will also benefit from private testing as oftentimes CBD-infused products don’t actually contain what the label says.”
CTL will operate independently of the university, but the lab will be a resource for faculty and students. There will be internship and experiential learning opportunities available at the lab for students. In addition to that, the lab will also help faculty that teach cannabis-related courses.
“I am proud to be one of the creators of a fully accredited cannabis testing lab that provides our farmers and processors reliable and quick local testing of hemp,” says Dr. Sutlief. “CTL is among the first ISO-certified cannabis testing labs in the U.S. that is a subsidiary of a university. Innovation, research, entrepreneurship and education will be the central pillars of CTL as we set ourselves apart to become leaders in cannabis testing not only in Nebraska and the Midwest but also nationally.”
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